Monthly Archives: June 2011

It’s your voodoo working

This week Office Naps surveys some R&B favorites from the early ‘60s.

There’s no tight conceptual theme, though these selections share some sensibilities.  They mine the arrangements and robust, minor-key melodies of compositions like “Fever,” “St. James Infirmary” or “Summertime.”   They’re pop-friendly but they’re highly stylized blues, too, infused with feeling without invoking all the usual 12-bar clichés.   They’re tinged with subtle, underlying Latin rhythms and an air of melancholy, even exoticism.

There’s also a poignancy here.  These selections capture the pivotal moment (years, actually) in the early ‘60s when R&B, as a commercial force, was being irrevocably superseded by an ascendant, and rapidly maturing, soul music.  Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Atlantic Records and Stax Records were already changing the game.  It wasn’t the end of R&B – which, either way, became a blanket term for pop-oriented commercially-produced black music.   But these transitional years were a sort of final, and irrevocable, shift for the R&B form.

Rhythm and blues had come a long way by the early ‘60s.  These three productions have a moody, churning power; stylistically distant from the R&B’s roots, they represent the best of the form’s final, most sophisticated commercial bloom.

Charles Sheffield, It’s Your Voodoo Working (Excello 45-2200)1. Charles Sheffield, It’s Your Voodoo Working (Excello 45-2200)
Born in Beaumont, Texas, Charles Sheffield cut the superb “It’s Your Voodoo Working” in 1961.  It would come amidst a sporadic eight-year-long run of 45s for this mysterious R&B vocalist.

Sheffield’s 45s, recorded for a handful of excellent Southern labels, together form an interesting primer on the Gulf Coast strain of R&B and blues.  As “Mad Dog Sheffield,” his first 45 (“Mad Dog” b/w “Clear My Night of Misery”) was a fairly straight-ahead blues shouter for the pioneering Louisiana label Goldband Records in 1957.  After this debut came Sheffield’s two 1958 singles (“Never No More” b/w “Is It Because I Love You” and “I’ve Gotta Love” b/w “Shoo Shoo Chicken”), much in the same vein, on Rocko Records, one of several labels run by the Crowley-based J.D. Miller, another key Louisiana studio and label operator.

Two more releases on Nashville’s Excello Records, including both this selection and its follow-up (“I Would Be a Sinner” b/w “The Kangaroo”), followed in 1961.

Charles Sheffield, circa 1962

The elusive Charles Sheffield. Newspaper photo, circa 1962

Sheffield’s three final 45s, all released in the mid-‘60s, were recorded as “Prince Charles.”  There was a swampy blues 45 for Huey Meaux’s Teardrop Records (“Come On Home” b/w “Only You”) and a second 45 for Meaux’s Jetstream label (the slightly more modern “Sick” b/w  “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray”).  And there’s the slinky “Baby Call Home” b/w “I Must Be #1,” released by NRC, an Atlanta record label.

Of Sheffield’s releases – which were commercially fruitless – “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” cut at J.D. Miller’s Crowley studios in 1961, is the highpoint.   This track is relatively sophisticated fare for Excello Records, one of the great post-War blues labels, though this track still maintains the Afro-Latin underpinnings and dark atmosphere that characterize Excello’s finest Louisiana sides.

Sheffield seems to have become finally disenchanted with recording music at some point in the ‘60s, a state of affairs that, in retrospect, was probably hastened by his dealings with some of the region’s most notorious music business hustlers.  Otherwise, Sheffield seems to have disappeared without a trace; I’d love to know more of what happened to him.

Thanks to Dan Phillip, who wrote of Charles Sheffield, and this 45 in particular, at Home of the Groove several years back.

2. Marv Johnson, With All That’s In Me (UA 423)Marv Johnson, With All That’s In Me (UA 423)
The great R&B vocalist and songwriter Marv Johnson was born in Detroit in 1938.  His early musical profile reads like that of many a young R&B singer from the time: a musically gifted youngster, he was raised on gospel music and secular R&B and pop material, sang with local vocal groups in his teens and debuted, at the age of twenty, with the obligatory obscure local single, 1958’s “My Baby-O” b/w “Once Upon A Time.”

Johnson was spotted in 1959 by fledgling producer, songwriter and future Motown mogul Berry Gordy, and “Come to Me,” Johnson’s ensuing 45, was, notably, the inaugural release on Gordy’s Tamla Records.

If “Come to Me” was the first Motown record, the seed from which the empire grew, at the time it was a more propitious beginning for Johnson, as the song’s commercial potential got the attention of the major label United Artists, who immediately stepped in and signed away Johnson, licensing and nationally releasing the 45 in turn, and with immediately successful returns.

The young Marv Johnson

The young Marv Johnson. Image courtesy of Yesterday's Gold.

Johnson enjoyed further success at United Artists, early on scoring with pop and R&B hits like 1959’s “You Got What It Takes,” 1960’s “I Love the Way You Love,” “(You’ve Got to) Move Two Mountains” and “Happy Days” and 1961’s “Merry-Go-Round.”    Television and tour appearances ensued for Johnson, and United Artists kept him on a prolific schedule of releases – including two full-length albums – over the next five years.

Johnson released the electrifying “With All That’s In Me” in February, 1962.  Penned by Detroit songwriters and musicians (and Motown associates) Clarence Paul, Andre Williams and Joe Hunter, it was neither a hit, nor typical of Johnson’s sterling-but-pop-oriented catalog, its piano vamps, titanic drum fill and Johnson’s commanding vocal giving the song a fearsome potency.

Indeed, like many of his cohort, Johnson’s smoother style, developed in the late ‘50s, would put him increasingly at odds with prevailing trends.   As the Motown sound and contemporary soul sounds exploded, Johnson’s sales figures for the somewhat stodgy United Artists would dwindle.

In 1965, Johnson returned to the Motown stable (even during his tenure at United Artists, Johnson co-wrote songs with Berry Gordy), recording three promising 45s with an updated sound that, however, did not seem to receive the complete support of the Motown promotional machine.  1968’s “I’ll Pick a Rose For My Rose,” on Motown’s Gordy imprint, would be Johnson’s last commercial release for the label.

Nonetheless, Johnson remained in the industry into the ‘70s, penning songs and working behind-the-scenes in Motown sales and promotion.  Though Johnson continued to perform live nearly until his 1993 death (following a stroke), his last Motown recordings would, with the exception of some recordings produced by UK Motown fanatic Ian Levine in the late ‘80s, represent his last releases, period.

Please refer to Pete Lewis’s 1992 interview for more on the fantastic Marv Johnson.

3.  Bobby King, Thanks Mr. Postman (Federal 45-12473)Bobby King, Thanks Mr. Postman (Federal 45-12473)
Not to be confused with several other R&B artists of the same name, Chicagoan Bobby King was a blues guitarist and vocalist who had a good local following and the greater respect of fellow guitarists, if not the added misfortune of living in a city full of such.

Born near Little Rock, Arkansas in the early ‘40s, King made his way to Chicago in 1959.  King, by all accounts a gifted guitarist, early on seems to have sought and found work as a supporting musician.  He played live behind R&B heavyweights like Hank Ballard and Bobby Bland, and contributed his spiky guitar licks to sessions for Lee Shot Williams, Jesse Anderson, Lonnie Johnson, Freddy King, Sonny Thompson and others in Syd Nathan’s King-Deluxe-Federal Records group at their peak in the first half of the ‘60s.

Bobby King, mid-'70s

Bobby King, playing live in Chicago in the mid-'70s. Image courtesy of the Recorded Live at Queen Bee cover.

King himself would also record a handful of 45s for the Federal Records in the early ‘60s.  They’re decent, capturing a capable singer who doesn’t move much beyond the trappings of Chicago blues.

1962’s “Thanks Mr. Postman” is the great exception to that.  A very loose answer to the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” the selection stands out as a marvelously moody, atmospheric anomaly, hinting only obliquely at the blues, not excepting King’s stinging guitar solo.

A good, if funkier, blues outing – “Froggy Bottom” for Weis Records , a Stax affiliate – would appear in the late ‘60s, and would be the terminus of King’s commercially-produced singles.   In the mid-‘70s, the French record label MCM released a live album by King – Recorded Live at Queen Bee – that captured him plowing through blues standards like “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a local lounge in 1975.

After recovering from a stroke, King returned to playing for several years with the 21st Century Rhythm & Blues Band (who also recorded a live date, the obscure Elsewhere on the North Side).  Tragically, a second stroke incapacitated King, and he passed on in Chicago in 1983, barely in his early forties.

Posted in R&B/Vocal Groups, Soul | 5 Comments

The bop that got left behind

It’s easy to forget how obscure, how underground bebop remained after its first flower in New York City in the ‘40s, and how rarely, even a decade later, it was recorded (and to a lesser degree, played) beyond New York City and hubs like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Bebop was never a wildly profitable enterprise.  Its momentum in mid-century America was predicated on small, tight-knit clusters of like-minded musicians and the support of open-minded clubs and audiences.  Professional recording studios and nationally-distributed record labels that released the music were critical, too, and further helped to provide jazz modernists with exposure as well as a supply of session and ensemble gigs.

As with any innovative, abstracted strain of art, literature or music, bebop found the most traction in the largest cities.  Listeners sympathetic to bebop were more likely to exist in major metropolitan areas; a willing audience attracted more musicians, who, in turn, facilitated the infrastructure – the clubs, studios, labels, record and music shops – necessary for further sustaining and promoting the form.

Such factors tended to work against the fledgling networks of jazz musicians in other cities.  Even a large industrial city like a Pittsburgh, Seattle or St. Louis continually had their jazz talent siphoned off.  Prospects – money, audiences, opportunities – were brighter elsewhere. Still, despite local audiences’ indifference and limited avenues to broader recognition, always there were the fanatics smitten with bebop, who, even if unable, unwilling, or uninterested in relocating to pursue their craft, somehow kept the torch alive for the music in the post-War years, and sometimes in the most impractical places.

Mouse Bonati, Back (Patio MJ-1)1.  Mouse Bonati, Back (Patio MJ-1)
Ed. note: Updated November 14, 2011.

Post-War jazz in New Orleans

The most popular jazz in post-War New Orleans was ostensibly a revivalist affair – Pete Fountain and the Dukes of Dixieland sold millions of records with their Dixieland and traditional jazz retreads.  While concurrently proving itself one of the nation’s great, vital R&B powerhouses, New Orleans’s glory years at the leading edge of jazz were decades gone by the time of bebop’s ascendance in the ‘40s.

Despite the city’s general apathy about this new, modern permutation of jazz (a generalization fairly leveled at any city not among Great Migration destination points), New Orleans did have its bop devotees, many of whom were convening in the late ‘40s and ‘50s to jam at French Quarter nightclubs and strip joints.  Places like Louis Prima’s 500 Club, the Gunga Den and the Sho’Bar employed these young enthusiasts as pit musicians, and served as primary loci for the after-hours sessions where the form took root in the city.  Some of these young musicians would shortly light out for points north (Bill Evans, Vern Fournier, Mundell Lowe) and west (Joe Pass, Brew Moore, Frank Strazerri, Ed Blackwell, Earl Palmer).  Others, like Ellis Marsalis, Al Belletto, Bill Huntington and Mike Serpas stuck around New Orleans for longer, or for good.

Amongst the latter, saxophonist Joseph “Mouse” Bonati would be one of the earliest and most visible champions of bop.  Little, unfortunately, in the way of New Orleans bebop was recorded in its time, but Mouse Bonati figures prominently in discussions about modern jazz in New Orleans.

Joseph “Mouse” Bonati

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1930, Joseph “Mouse” Bonati was the youngest of five musically- and artistically-inclined brothers and sisters: Ralph, Roy, Anne and Al.  His father died when Joe was six months old; Joe’s eldest brother Ralph, fourteen years old at the time, would in particular help out with his upbringing.  (Incidentally, there are two different family stories about the “Mouse” sobriquet.   One has it that it was coined by an artist friend of the family who, while drawing a family portrait, made special note of the youngest Bonati’s appearance.   The second version was that it was born, as a vision, during one of Mouse’s own drug-induced reveries.)

The young Joe, evincing the family’s musical and artistic talents, played the violin, receiving the standard classical-oriented musical education of the era.  In the late ’40s, barely out of his teens, playing saxophone and enamored of both jazz and – like so many other young musicians – of Charlie Parker, Mouse Bonati moved to New Orleans.

In New Orleans, Mouse would meet Ronda Adler through mutual friend Larry Borenstein (founder of Preservation Hall).  Adler – a young jazz enthusiast who’d worked previously as a cigarette girl at the storied Birdland jazz club – was then en route to Mexico from New York City, but stayed on in New Orleans, eventually marrying Mouse, with daughter Gina born in 1957 and son Chris in 1959.   With Ronda working at the Court of Two Sisters, Mouse, continuing to hone his Bird-influenced style, would pursue the musical life in the colorful clubs of New Orleans.   A multi-instrumentalist – he also played piano, flute and clarinet – Bonati would become a well-known presence in the New Orleans jazz community.

Mouse Bonati’s New Orleans sides – all released by the tiny Patio Records – represent some of the earliest bebop recorded in the city.  Recorded in a single sitting in 1957, the Patio sessions yielded four tracks under Mouse’s aegis.  Supported by compadres Benny Clement (trumpet), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Chick Power (tenor saxophone), Edward Frank (piano) and Earl Palmer (drums), these recordings would be released sequentially on two 45s – “Back” backed with “One Blind Mouse” (Patio MJ-1) followed by “Mouse’s House” backed with “What a Difference a Day Made” (Patio MJ-2).  They show the altoist in full Charlie Parker mode.

That same year would also see the release of the lone LP on Patio Records, an album of New Orleans bebop entitled New Sounds From New Orleans.  Put together by friend and fellow musician Jack Martin, the album was divided between the Jack Martin Octet’s “Jazz Suite de Camera” on one side (which features Bonati playing in a supporting role) and Mouse Bonati’s music – his four 45 recordings, along with a strange multi-tracked tape experiment entitled “Improvisations” – on the other.

As the ‘50s wore on, recorded music began to displace the musicians working in the Bourbon Street clubs.   Local gigs became harder to find, and, like many musicians and artists, Mouse’s own life and personal relationships were getting more complicated. Around 1960, not long after these recordings were made, Mouse relocated to Las Vegas, and the ensuing years would form something of the next chapter in his life as a working musician.  Though no further commercial recordings would be released in this time, the relative security of resort gigs – the lifeblood of many jazz musicians in those years – kept Mouse active as a professional musician.

Mouse’s residencies as a jazz soloist and section musician would take him from Lake Tahoe in mid-‘60s (at Harrod’s Resort) to the Bahamas in the late ‘60s (at Paradise Island), then back to Lake Tahoe around 1970.  His longest-term residency would follow upon settling in Las Vegas, where he lived from 1972 onwards, with a steady residency at the Lido show at Caesar’s, along with jazz gigs at venues like the Tropicana Ballroom and Dusty’s Playland.

Mouse Bonati was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in the early ‘80s, sadly making playing impossible in his final years.  His a life spent in the jazz world, devoted to music. Joseph “Mouse” Bonati passed away in 1983.

Jerry Berry Quintet, A Tribute to Miles (Soma 1117x45)2.  Jerry Berry Quintet, A Tribute to Miles (Soma 1117×45)
The Soma Records story and discography are well-known to fans and collectors. From early rockabilly to mid-‘60s garage band sounds, Amos Heilicher’s Minneapolis-based Soma Records chronicled young rock ‘n’ roll of the Upper Midwest better than any other label operation.

Based, presumably, in the Upper Midwest, Jerry Berry is clearly no rock ‘n’ roller, but it’s still surprising that there are so few details to be unearthed about him.  “A Tribute to Miles” was released in July of 1959, to my ears a sort of impression, and a well-done one, of cool, definitive mid-tempo Davis recordings like “All Blues” or “Bag’s Groove.”

“A Tribute to Miles” and its flipside (a fine uptempo version of “Love for Sale”) would be the first of two Jerry Berry 45s released in quick succession.  The second – the Quintet’s jazz readings of Joe Liggins’s “Pink Champagne” and Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge’s “Drum Boogie” – reveal no further clues, either, unfortunately.

Clyde Dickerson And The Tear Drops, Cool Week-End (Kinzua Kl 102 B)3.  Clyde Dickerson And The Tear Drops, Cool Week-End (Kinzua Kl 102 B)
Born in Bristol, Tennesse, saxophonist Clyde Dickerson’s home base eventually became Washington D.C., where he was known for many years as “Watergate.” (Dickerson’s day job was as doorman at the infamous Watergate Hotel.)

In early ‘60s, though, Dickerson was playing in and around western New York.  There his “Cool Week-End” was recorded in 1964 and released on the custom-pressed label Kinzua.  This is rough, raw stuff, with sour notes resounding during the piano solo.  It is again clearly fired by the brisk tempos and melodies of early bebop – the unison passages could have been lifted from an early Dexter Gordon or Kenny Dorham 78.   (Its flipside, an atmospheric version of Jesse Belvin’s R&B ballad “Guess Who,” is posted at the great That’s All Rite Mama.)   “Cool Week-End” is also quite the contrast to the prior, and only other, Kinzua Records release, Red Arrow and the Braves’ “The Last Days of the Kinzua” and its flipside “Redskin Rumble,” two sides of wild, oddball rock ‘n’ roll.

Dickerson seems to have been something of the journeyman musician and arranger around the resort towns and metropolitan areas of western New York.  In addition to his own records, his somewhat unexpected co-writer credits include both sides of the aforementioned Red Arrow and the Braves 45.  He appears, too, to have worked occasionally with the Buffalo-based group the Jesters, and possibly contributed some saxophone work on their hip 1962 instrumental “Alexander Graham Bull.”  (Jesters’ drummer Tony DiMaria is given co-credit for “Cool Week-End,” implying another connection.)

At some point in the ‘60s, however, Dickerson would settle in Washington D.C., leading groups on at least three different D.C.-area soul 45s in the early ‘70s – “Love Bandit” and “Black and Beautiful” (both on Jonetta Records) along with “There’s No Justice for the Young” (on Soultown Records).

Dickerson seems to have remained more active as a performer, however, with regular appearances with D.C.-area jazz and R&B A-listers, including Byron Morris, the Mangione brothers, David Ruffin and Rick James.  Clyde Dickerson passed away from stroke-related complications in 2003.

Posted in Jazz Obscura | 10 Comments

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